Yamina Vicente, a former professor of economics at the University of Havana who now owns a party planning and decorations business in Cuba called Decorazón, is this week’s featured contributor to the Cuba Central News Brief. Yamina will join other Cuban entrepreneurs next week in meetings with U.S. policymakers, recommending ways for U.S. policy to support the Cuban private sector. In 2013, Yamina traveled to Washington to participate in CDA’s conference on Cuba’s new economy, and in December 2016, she was one of more than 100 signatories on a letter from Cuban entrepreneurs to then-President-elect Donald Trump urging him to continue building U.S.-Cuba ties.
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Just a few decades ago, Cuba’s private sector was nonexistent. Entrepreneurship had been all but forgotten. Some years back, as a result of the economic crisis of the 1990s, Cuba’s government began to revive a number of self-employment activities that relieved the Cuban economy by generating employment and income sources for the population. However, this space remained concentrated in just a few types of businesses until the last decade, when the range of legalized activities was expanded to include 211 types of business licenses. Consequently, today we have private taxi drivers, stores, beauty salons, restaurants, gyms, designers, event planners, and more.
This change, which some may consider trivial, inspired hopes and dreams. Many young Cubans whose first choice would have been emigration could now choose family projects within Cuba. The growth of this sector expanded creativity and aesthetics, revived the internal economy, built small chains and productive linkages among cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs), produced community and sustainable development projects, and diversified options for both domestic and foreign clients. Many of the small privately owned businesses served as stimuli for state-run centers. The benefits of the establishment of the private sector in Cuba are innumerable.
Many of the successful businesses in the country are directly tied to the reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba relations. The growth of U.S. travel, and the improvement of telecommunications that this process brought with it, have stimulated the development of the incipient private sector.
Today, there are nearly half a million self-employed workers in Cuba, with significant female representation – people who decided to risk what little they had in pursuit of a dream. A major portion of the clientele for large restaurants, galleries, and homes for rent are Americans. A reversal of achievements in relations would be disastrous for them. But they would not be the only ones affected; the businesses that are directed toward domestic clients would also feel a negative impact, though indirectly. Many of the clients who commonly look to buy these products or services are family members of cuentapropistas, and reducing their income would lessen demand. Without a doubt, having less liquidity in the general population would affect small businesses in general.
For the Cuban cuentapropistas and their families who depend on their businesses, a reversal of U.S. policy toward Cuba would not only represent a “stop,” but a “step backward” in the work they dreamed of, and with much effort, built, for their children.
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